The Knoxville News Sentinel yesterday published yet another letter to the editor containing information ranging somewhere between stupid and outright false. As usual, they let it float in the ether without any critical notation, clarification or correction.

The letter writer asserts that "The FBI's latest crime statistics report that in 2011, there were 323 murders committed with a rifle but 496 murders committed with hammers." What follows is a clever satire calling for hammers to be banned.

The fallacy is that the FBI's crime statistics report doesn't really say that. What it says is that there were 496 homicides committed with blunt objects, which includes "clubs, hammers, etc.," where "etc." presumably includes baseball bats, tire irons, rocks, pipes, fireplace pokers... etc.

The report breaks down firearms related homicides into sub-categories by type of weapon, including handguns, rifles, shotguns, other guns and unspecified. The total for "rifles" is indeed 323, but the writer is comparing an aggregate total for all blunt instruments to a sub-category total for rifles instead of the aggregate total for firearms, which is 8,583. Further, the sub-category total for unspecified firearms (1,587) may in fact include an unknown number of rifles.

In short, because there is no breakdown by type of blunt instrument a direct comparison cannot be made.

Anyway, this meme is making its way around the right-wing "news" sites, forums and email forwards. The KNS is helping promote it, and you will soon hear from your patriotic, gun-toting, 2nd Amendment protecting relatives that more people are killed with hammers than guns. Putting aside the fact that a) it's wrong, and b) hammers have an intended legitimate purpose other than killing, it's just stupid.

The paper should really vet these letters for accuracy and rational thought, and if they are going to publish stupid, incorrect letters anyway (to promote enlightening civil discussion in the community about important issues and whatnot) they should include an editor's note saying "Everything that guy just said is BS."

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WhitesCreek's picture

Boy, you've hit on a pet

Boy, you've hit on a pet peeve of mine that has caused heated discussions with my editor friend. It peaked with the Tea Party froth nut has come back with a vengeance in the firearm debate.

Would this world be a different place if there were a jury of critical thinking that critiqued letters prior to publishing them?

Michael's picture

I couldn't disagree more

Bottom line: If it's in the OPINION section of the Sentinel or any other newspaper, Caveat Lector.

As a reader, you have some responsibility, yourself.
~m.

R. Neal's picture

People are entitled to their

People are entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts.

Michael's picture

Agreed. And people who are

Agreed. And people who are aware that they are reading an opinion, should not misconstrue it as a presentation of facts.

To take that position, you are making the same error as those who would take any purported "facts" and run with them.
~m.

R. Neal's picture

The writer stated incorrect

The writer stated incorrect facts to support his opinion. Being published in the paper lends credence to the incorrect facts, regardless of what section its published in. Letting it go unchallenged (or publishing it in the first place) is a violation of the public trust by the newspaper.

onetahiti's picture

Correction

According to that same FBI report, the total for firearms is 8,583. The total for all homicide methods is 12,664.

Look at totals for tobacco and for traffic deaths, both of which dwarf the above tragic numbers.

-- OneTahiti

R. Neal's picture

Thanks, read the wrong line.

Thanks, read the wrong line. Fixed.

WhitesCreek's picture

True, OneT, and we heavily

True, OneT, and we heavily regulate both tobacco and vehicle use, though possibly not enough.

Min's picture

And this is the real point.

Automobiles are inherently dangerous, just like guns. Either one in the hands of someone unskilled, impaired, or unhinged can cause both mayhem and death. The difference is that we do as much as we can possibly do to make sure that drivers of automobiles are properly trained and to make sure they understand the consequences of driving impaired.

We should do as much for guns. After all, an automobile and a gun are the same thing...a tool for human use. And the responsibility for making sure that any inherently dangerous tool is handled properly is a reasonable subject for regulation.

Michael's picture

If the editors of a newspaper

If the editors of a newspaper suggest facts in the newspaper's official editorials, I will gauge the editorial board, and paper, on the quality of those purported facts. But letters? Seriously?

Complaining about invalid information in a letter to the editor is giving the same credence to the source as those accept them on face value. That is to say, you're actually reading letters to the editor and taking the information as being presented by the paper as truth.

Careful with the comics. Some of that stuff doesn't actually reflect the real world either.
~m.

R. Neal's picture

I would agree with your

I would agree with your opinion if the writer had said "I'll bet more people are killed by hammers than guns" or something to that effect.

The writer didn't say that. He stated an alleged fact, supposedly based on FBI statistics (to lend it more credence). The paper read the letter and decided to publish it, perhaps because it is "clever."

How many people will now cite that "fact" as "proof" of their argument because they read it in the local paper of record. How many people will bother to verify it? They read it in the paper, why should they?

All I'm saying is that if the paper is going to publish letters with incorrect information on important subjects for amusement purposes they should note the incorrect facts.

What if it were harmful information, such as someone quoting Stacey Campfield saying a person can't get HIV from heterosexual sex?

WhitesCreek's picture

The role of the media in our society

If you call your publication a NEWS paper I think there is some expectation of factual content, regardless, unless it is in the comics or business section. Actually some truths seem to only be found in the comics but that's another story.

I agree that fact checking a letter is the least that should be expected. Otherwise the newspaper is lending credence, rightly or wrongly, to lies in some cases. The op ed should stand on its own if a paper wants to be a respected source of valid information. Do they allow other opinion pieces to misrepresent? We've all seen it but it should be the norm.

I really don't want my subscription money going to support a platform for misinformation.

bizgrrl's picture

I mean really, the Sentinel

I mean really, the Sentinel should be careful. Makes me think of Barker asking people to contribute to KNS comments to help educate. Puhlease!

Michael's picture

You realize, of course, that

You realize, of course, that the "facts," as they relate to the FBI report used by the letter writer, are accurate. If you "fact checked" the figures, you find what R. Neal did: that they are correct. The letter writer didn't say "firearms." He said "rifles." The "facts" were right.

I've seen a lot of biblical quotes in letters, too. But I could probably locate additional context for some of them that would undermine the writer's point. But why? The writer is only using the reference to frame their point, and ignoring things that don't.

In either case, I don't look to letters to the editor for information. I look to them for, get this, opinions.

The anger directed toward the KNS for publishing a letter from the community, that reflects a viewpoint that exists in the community, is misguided. Papers publish letters all the time that disagree with their own editorial stance. They're don't do it to inform the public of anything other than a climate of opinion, not to report relay truth about the subject.

Frankly, if the KNS did "vet these letters for accuracy and rational thought," they'd probably be doing a disservice to readers by offering a depiction of the community that was misleading.

What I read in that letter is that there are wackos in my community, not that the KNS endorses their wacko-ness.
~m.

R. Neal's picture

The "facts" were

The "facts" were right.

Actually, they weren't. The FBI statistics are for "blunt instruments," not "hammers." Comparing a sub-category total for one category to an aggregate total for another category is not valid. If the writer had said "blunt instruments" than I would agree. But he didn't, otherwise his brilliant satire wouldn't work.

Anyway, you are entitled to your opinion that it is OK for the local paper of record to propagate false or misleading information in the form of "opinion" for the purpose of entertainment. And it would be entertaining, if it weren't so disappointing and sometimes dangerous.

Michael's picture

Yeah. You're right about the

Yeah. You're right about the blunt instruments v. hammers thing. But that's not what you chose to take issue with. Might be that that discrepancy didn't further your point about the letter's conclusions. See how that works?

I don't mean to offend. But it really does seem like there's a monolithic view of everything printed in the paper. If you can separate the comics from the news, I don't see why you can't do likewise with the letters. I rarely bother to read letters to the editor. They're not there to deliver accurate information, only viewpoints. And I know what sort of community I live in.

Calling out KNS is only blaming the messenger in this case.
~m.

WhitesCreek's picture

A piece in a print newspaper

A piece in a print newspaper is not instantly subject to rebuttal like a digital post. A false analogy used to make a false point is a lie. I think the newspaper should be responsible for pointing that out as an editor's comment. This would be the responsible thing to do if your intent is to educate your readership.

metulj's picture

Michael is right. Factually,

Michael is right. Factually, the gentleman is correct, but his capacity to make a rational argument based on those facts is wanting. I tell students that we have a world of facts available to them, but the problem is reasoning skills to evaluate those facts.

R. Neal's picture

Factually, the gentleman is

Factually, the gentleman is correct

Actually, for the third or fourth time, no he isn't.

metulj's picture

He states that rifles killed

He states that rifles killed X number of people. His low IQ shows up in his reasoning skills by drawing a patently false comparison.

barkers's picture

letter

I'm not working this week and so did not see the letter until it was published. That said, I probably would have let the letter go. The writer is spinning accurate numbers (as R.Neal points out) like crazy, using hammers as a stand-in for all blunt objects. I presume he meant to use stats for rifles only because of the move to ban assault rifles. Obviously, the writer is spinning stats to make a point. Which is the purpose of letters to the editor. And, as michael pointed out, readers understand that letters to the editor are written by amateurs, not journalists, and the claims made in them might or might not be accurate.

The News Sentinel does not have the luxury of having a staff of fact-checkers such as the staff at the New Yorker. We have exactly one person who handles letters to the editor as one part of her job. This week, in my absence, she is shouldering many more responsibilities as well. If anyone here wants to volunteer their time to be a KNS fact-checker, I'll listen.

I will point out that posts here are not vetted for accuracy either. I can post that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and it would appear on this site. It would rightly be savaged by those who stubbornly insist on facts, but it would appear. The letter in question generated lots of responses online. Several of them pointed out the spin on statistics, just as Randy did here. That kind of dialogue, which is common here on knoxviews, is what we aim to create.

metulj's picture

That post would be deleted

That post would be deleted and the account banned.

barkers's picture

somehow

Somehow, I doubt that. I believe Randy would leave it up so that every other thinking person on the planet would ridicule it. As they should. I always liked it when people would assert that he was born in Kenya. It gave me the opportunity to say that even if he had been born in Kenya, he would be a natural born citizen under the U.S. Code.

R. Neal's picture

Policies elsewhere

NY Times letters policy

Letter writers, to use a well-worn phrase, are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. There is, of course, a broad gray area in which hard fact and heartfelt opinion commingle. But we do try to verify the facts, either checking them ourselves or asking writers for sources of information. Sometimes we goof, and then we publish corrections.

Washington Post letters policy

Letters are edited for clarity, fact checked and sometimes trimmed to fit the space available in the newspaper. The opinions expressed are always the writer's own. We confer with letter writers about editing to the extent that deadlines allow.

Naples News (a Scripps paper) letters policy

The Naples Daily News welcomes letters of up to 250 words. The editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, brevity, good taste and accuracy, and to prevent libel.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch letters policy

All letters are subject to editing for fact, grammar, length, clarity and taste.

Denver Post letters policy

The Post welcomes letters up to 150 words on topics of general interest. Letters must include full name, home address and day and evening phone numbers. Letters may be edited for length, grammar and accuracy.

etc.

barkers's picture

rejection

Randy, we reject letters all the time because of outright falsehoods. You would not believe the stuff we get that does not see the light of day. As with the other papers you cite, we edit them for length, grammar and accuracy. For example, I cannot recall allowing a letter to be published that asserted Obama was born in Kenya, though we received many of them.

R. Neal's picture

Thanks, that is reassuring. I

Thanks, that is reassuring. I suspect you would have at least paused for a second or two to question something that on the face of it sounded so bogus.

Fabricant's picture

And, as michael pointed out,

And, as michael pointed out, readers understand that letters to the editor are written by amateurs, not journalists, and the claims made in them might or might not be accurate.

Readers also understand KNS is responsible for choosing which letters to publish. Hence, unlike the comments section, KNS is responsible for the letters it chooses to publish. And the fact is, KNS published a factually inaccurate letter. There were not 496 murders with a hammer last year. It was irresponsible of KNS to publish this inaccuracy.

WhitesCreek's picture

I dispute the claim that

I dispute the claim that letters like this are written by amateurs. I am seeing that in many cases the talking points are well crafted by pros who disseminate them. They are picked up and reassembled into letters such as the one in question. have you ever attended a Tea Party meeting?

barkers's picture

Yes, many letters are sent to

Yes, many letters are sent to us using similar talking points, and from both sides of the aisle. But that doesn't mean the writers are being deceptive. If a person sees something on FOX or MSNBC and uses those points in writing a letter, there's nothing sinister or evil about it. However, we do our best to filter out "astroturf," which is jargon for form letters that some groups distribute to members for them to send as letters to the editor. We're probably not infallible, but we do try to identify astroturf and keep it out of the paper.

Fabricant's picture

"Ain't no party like my

"Ain't no party like my Grandma's Tea Party." I've never been to one of those things but you are right. Propagated info cloaked in opinion letters is a time old endeavor.

R. Neal's picture

Apparent source of the

Apparent source of the meme...

(The original author was somewhat more accurate.)

It now gets 2.25 million hits on google...

Michael's picture

As a Final Thought on the Matter

If the concern really is that KNS readers are going to get the wrong message from the letter, wouldn't it be more effective to offer corrections (or insult the author's IQ) where those KNS readers (and the letter's author) might benefit from actually reading them rather than to merely knock the paper here?

Let's call that one rhetorical.
~m.

bizgrrl's picture

No.

No.

WhitesCreek's picture

That's what we're saying

Only I think the Editor should do that at the time the letter is published. Waiting for a rebuttal let's the false information sit in the public conscious unchallenged for long enough that it settles in. The people who create this stuff know that. It's the "First Lie Wins" theory of campaigning. It has to be challenged immediately. To let it stand let's the propagandist get their way.

R. Neal's picture

Seems like the person

Seems like the person responsible for letters and in the best position to address the issue has read my concerns here and responded. Mission accomplished.

cafkia's picture

I will chime in in agreement

I will chime in in agreement that a short editor's comment attached to the letter would have been appropriate and useful. Commenting on the KNS site is of extremely limited value in correcting misleading information publicized in print.

redmondkr's picture

Here's a news flash.

Here's a news flash. Attempting to correct misleading information on the online version is worse than useless. It paints a target on the back of the commenter who displays some sanity.

Fabricant's picture

And lots of people don't even

And lots of people don't even read those comments, for obvious reasons.

Michael's picture

Or the letters, for what

Or the letters, for what should be evident as obvious reasons.
~m.

Michael's picture

Or the letters, for what

Or the letters, for what should be evident as obvious reasons.
~m.

Factchecker's picture

Non sequitur

...readers understand that letters to the editor are written by amateurs, not journalists, and the claims made in them might or might not be accurate.

This might be the problem. I think you may be giving too much credit to many KNS readers and this perpetuates the problem and the ignorance. There are SO many KNS letter writers that restate the same false meme (Obama's agenda is to turn the country socialist, global warming is a proven hoax, etc.), that KNS is effectively giving them a legitimate megaphone. There aren't enough progressives to counterbalance the BS. And by then the lie has saturated anew.

I see Michael's and Barker's point that it's hard to filter non-grammar, misleading stats, etc., though. Is there blanket disclaimer for the op-ed section stating that letters may contain factual misinformation attributable to only the writers, or something similar?

bizgrrl's picture

Based onn some of this

Based onn some of this discussion, it would appear the majority of the KNS that is not advertisements is not factual. Thus, getting harder for the reader to find what might be "fact". Maybe the KNS should try to use more factual content. And, don't say they don't have enought staff, etc. That's getting old. If they don't have the staff, then they should put disclaimers at all parts of the paper that might not be factual, letters to the editor, editorials, columnists, perspectives. If the KNS doesn't have the staff to provide a "newspaper", then maybe they should change the name to Knox Perspective.

WhitesCreek's picture

I have to question the

I have to question the motives of any news entity that publishes the like of Greg Johnson. There's better work to be found in the bottom of most any cesspool.

trobinson's picture

@ Barkers

Randy, we reject letters all the time because of outright falsehoods. You would not believe the stuff we get that does not see the light of day. As with the other papers you cite, we edit them for length, grammar and accuracy. For example, I cannot recall allowing a letter to be published that asserted Obama was born in Kenya, though we received many of them.

That makes no sense. You've made an editorial decision on birther claims because, I assume, you decided it's an obvious falsehood, but a claim that hammers are used more than rifles in homicides is allowed to be published because the editor is too busy? Really? Any educated editor would be able to disprove that claim in 15 minutes of google search. Of course, the first 10 hits are a part of the right wing propaganda loop (FOX, Breitbart, Newsmax, etc.) It does Knoxville a disservice for our last newspaper to be a cog in that wheel.

Factchecker's picture

+1 to Min

+1 to Min.

Michael's picture

On the automobile analogy

Automobile owners are obligated to carry insurance on their cars so that if those vehicles are involved in an accident the owners can shoulder the financial responsibility. Not so with firearms.
~m.

metulj's picture

But. But. But. Guns are a

But. But. But. Guns are a right not a privilege!

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